In "Дама с собачкой", часть 2, Чехов writes: "Анна Сергеевна была трогательна, от нее веяло чистотой порядочной, наивной, мало жившей женщины; одинокая свеча, горевшая на столе, едва освещала ее лицо, но было видно, что у нее нехорошо на душе."

I have a question about the translation of "... горевшая... and освещала..." Resp. part. past act. and (not part.) past tense f.

My translation: the solitary candle burning on the table threw scarcely light on her face...

I do not understand the function of горевшая, does this not mean that the candle has burnt? Why doesn't Chekhov use горящая instead (part. pres. active)?


4 Answers 4


It doesn't mean that the candle has burnt. It means that the candle was burning during that time (while she was sitting next to that particular candle) - moment in the past tense.

I think, that the author wanted to emphasize this. But it is not an error in Russian to say "горящая" in this phrase as well.


That's a direct consequence of using tenses with participles. In English you actually have no choice, as "burning" cannot be put into past tense, except a complex construction such as "was burning". But in Russian both "горящая" and "горевшая" fit nice, because the sentence is in the past tense anyway.

So it's only about minor stylistic difference. If author constantly uses past tense, then he's trying to make an impression of reminescenes, recollections, some distancing from the events of his story. On the other hand, using past tense for verbs but present tense for participles gives a feeling of an instant look, sort of "a book with pictures".


The answer is very simple: the English participles have relative tenses, the Russian participles have absolute tenses.

By "relative tenses" I mean that although 'burning' is called a "present participle", it does not actually refer exactly to the very moment of speech, its "present" meaning is to show an action happening simultaneously with the action expressed by the predicate verb. Thus, "The burning candle lit her face" means that the candle was burning when the face was lit, it does not mean that the candle is burning now.

But the Russian participles are not (often) like this, their tenses are absolute, they do not need any other verbs to explain the exact moment when the action is or was taking place. Горящая normally means "burning right now, at the moment of speech", горевшая means "the one which was burning then, at that/some moment in the past". Thus, "свеча, горевшая на столе" means "the candle which was burning at the table at that moment."

Still, the Russian present active participles (горящая) are often used the same way as the English present active participles (burning), that is, with the relative tense meaning, e.g. "Они увидели (past) горящую (pres.) свечу." Generally speaking, the semantics of the Russian present active participles is ideally seen in the sentences where both the predicate verb and the active participle are in the present tense, e.g. "Я вижу (pres.) горящую (pres.) свечу." And for practical reasons, it is better to use the Russian active participles in the same tense as the predicate verb, just like Chekhov did it.


Indeed, "горевшая" is more like "was burning" and "has burnt" would be "сгоревшая".
Although russian grammar allows mixing past and pres. in same sentence, it sounds bad to me, since the whole sentence is written in past.

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